Orders of the Day — Public Accounts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:07 pm on 1st May 1980.

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Photo of Mr Barry Jones Mr Barry Jones , Flint East 6:07 pm, 1st May 1980

I shall not follow the Minister of State and the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) into the details of the situation in Northern Ireland. I should like to refer to the shrewd and statesmanlike remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Barnett), who referred to the other and new departmental Select Committees.

I notice that some commentators are now writing off the Public Accounts Commmittee as no longer being Parliament's most prestigious and powerful Select Committee. Yesterday, the meetings of 11 Select Committees were notified on the Order Paper, most of them the new departmental Committees. Before Christmas the proceedings of the Public Accounts Committee were frequently broadcast, but since the setting up of the new departmental Committees there have not been any indications of interest in our proceedings. I understand that when the Treasury departmental Committee met less than a fortnight ago and had before it as a witness the Chancellor of the Exchequer. there was not even standing room.

The Public Accounts Committee does not send for Ministers as witnesses. It has to make do with the so-called mandarins. Those who watched the recent television series " Yes, Minister " may say " Yes, but perhaps the mandarins are the real masters" and that the PAC is interrogating those who really count, but I do not agree with that statement. I believe that it would be most unwise to write off the Public Accounts Committee. It is back by 700 professionals, and it is always well equipped for members of the Committee to be given the in-depth reports that they require.

Currently, there is considerable discussion about the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General. He has great integrity, and I should like his independence to be preserved. To that end, we should ensure the removal of certain of the Treasury's powers of direction. The Comptroller and Auditor General should have his own exchequer and audit department. He should take over the local government district audit. It is arguable that in local government expenditure some of the more flagrant and widespread wastes of money are occurring.

The audit service of central Government should have access to the books of our State industries. I refer especially to the British Steel Corporation. There was recently a crisis of confidence in the board and an unprecedented, lengthy and bitter strike. That was partly because, over a period, leaders of the steel workers, and later some of the middle management, were saying that the corporation's financial calculations were, to say the least, faulty. As tens of thousands of jobs were at stake, the subjection of the board to a public audit was an important request by the leaders of the steel workers. The charge was made in the recent dispute that value for money had not been obtained over the past decade. Investment in the industry had been about £3 billion.

It is true that in the sixth report there are examples of where the Committee has probed to ensure value for money. I have been able to see how important the Government's cash grants have been to attempts to regenerate Britain's industrial structure. I have in mind the examination of witnesses from the National Enterprise Board. I cite as an important example our deliberations over the two new Rolls-Royce engines that we debated, probed and examined. I believe that about £400 million of State money is currently programmed for the two engines. That is vital for the survival of the British aerospace industry. It was in the Public Accounts Committee that we were able to establish that we would be into the 1990s before that vast sum invested in the aerospace industry, especially in the engines division of Rolls-Royce, turned to profits. That was the view of the Department of Industry and the National Enterprise Board. We learnt in that same Session that it was vital speedily to build a new titanium smelter in the United Kingdom before the end of 1982, or else the mineral required in the new engines would have to be imported from abroad, thus putting us at a considerable disadvantage.

As a result of the probing questions of Committee members, we learnt that if the 1990s profits were to be realised we would have to hope—perhaps that is the operative word—that the pound would be reasonably strong in relation to the dollar. I think that $1·80 was mentioned. In that one Session, it was the Public Accounts Committee that was able to bring into prominence important facts and pieces of information such as the £400 million investment, the industrial base of Great Britain and the hopes of exports and prosperity.

I shall conclude by trying to assess briefly the work of the Committee. I get the impression that the mandarins of the Whitehall complex do not take lightly any appearance that they make before my right hon. Friend the Member for Hey-wood and Royton and the Committee. I judge by observation that it must be a considerable ordeal to be examined by my right hon. Friend and the Committee for more than two hours and to be called to account before Members of Parliament for actions and policy. It is clear that some of the witnesses occasionally play for time. I have seen some of them rendered literally speechless by some of the techniques employed and questions asked by my right hon. Friend and other members of the Committee.

I have formed some overall impressions. Accounting officers take the Committee with deadly seriousness. Audit staff have considerable professional expertise. The contribution of Members of Parliament as watchdogs makes for a successful operation, and there are the contributions of the various witnesses. Every one of them, whatever the nature of his remarks and contributions, oversees the massive expenditure of his Department—literally hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.

Members of the Committee are faced with frequent and lengthy meetings. They receive many detailed reports and other papers. It is becoming harder to keep up to date with the papers that we receive. The work of the Committee takes up a great deal of a Member's time. Finally, my right hon. Friend said that his predecessor was a very good Chairman. There is no doubt that he was, but I think that my right hon. Friend is a good Chairman.